Carl Hester: Is this Russian roulette for riders? *H&H VIP*

Opinion

In May, the FEI issued a press release that left me puzzled. It warned the equestrian community about synephrine, which is a banned substance on the FEI equine prohibited substances database.

The FEI defines a banned substance as one that should never be used for any reason, but synephrine is also classified as a “specified substance”. The FEI states that: “Specified substances should not be considered less important or less dangerous than other prohibited substances. Rather, they are simply substances that are more likely to have been ingested by horses for a purpose other than the enhancement of sport performance, for example, through a contaminated food substance.”

These rules do not only affect the international riders. Everyone who competes at British Dressage (BD) affiliated competitions is bound by them.

Synephrine, the substance mentioned, can be found in some plants and trees, and has been detected in a spate of positive tests, not in the UK, but elsewhere in the world. Testing levels for prohibited substances are now so sensitive that micro traces can still be detected in a horse’s system several months after ingestion. The penalty for such a finding on riders is severe, including an automatic ban and fine. Professionals could easily lose sponsors and owners, and the shame would be immense.

There is no excuse for doping cheats, not least on horse welfare grounds, but how are any of us to control substances found in hay and grass? I believe it is essential, if we are to provide a healthy lifestyle for our horses, that they are regularly turned out.

The FEI’s contamination prevention advisory also lists poppies, crocuses, nightshade and lupins as environmental contaminants that could lead to a positive equine anti-doping and controlled medication (EADCM) test result.

Russian roulette

I have been discussing my concerns with fellow international rider Richard Davison at Bolesworth — where sadly the rain prevented audiences getting in to see us snorkelling. It was fine for the horses, but what a shame for spectators and this wonderful show.

But back to the topic in hand. When you consider that it is scientifically proven for a horse to absorb substances from licking or even standing on contaminated bedding, and how unsanitised overnight competition stabling can be, it shows how vulnerable we are.

How many times have you arrived at a show — and I am not talking about Bolesworth here — to find the remnants from the previous horse on the walls, in the manger or used bedding in the stable? Richard also reminded me of a recent case of contamination caused by the accidental transference of a medicated skin cream.

The International Jumping Riders Club has recently lobbied the FEI using videos made by top riders and we have asked the International Dressage Riders Club to help, too. But who is representing our everyday BD competitor when it comes to adjusting to anti-doping regulations, which can be counter-effective in terms of horse welfare and fairness?

Without wishing to sound alarmist, it feels that regardless of competition level we could all be playing Russian roulette with anti-doping policies.

Ref Horse & Hound; 20 June 2019